"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

The Man You Want to Love, but Love to Hate

I saw a big, bald-headed Spanish guy wearing a maroon throwback Mike Schmidt jersey (with a 1979 barnstorming tour in Japan on the sleeve) today on the 1 train. The guy looked to be in his mid-to-late thirties. I didn’t really catch him until we were about to both exit the train. He was with two other kids, both in their early twenties I’d guess, maybe younger. I caught the dude’s eye as we went through the turnstiles. I complimented on him on the jersey and one of the kids says to the dude, “That’s the second guy on that’s said something to you since we got on the train.”

I told them that I had Schmidt on the brain lately thinking about the kind of treatment Alex Rodriguez is getting from a lot of Yankee fans this year. But before I could finish getting the words Alex Rodriguez out of my mouth, one of the younger kids skipped ahead of me as we walked down the steps of the 231st street station and said definitively, “A Rod sucks.”

I think Rodriguez is a great player of course. Got a piece on him over at SI.com today, just in time for the subway serious. I enjoy rooting for Rodriguez because his at-bats, particularly at home, really seem to matter. Just like they do for all of the superduper stars. Though he has not come through as often as Yankee fans would like he has had many great moments in his two-plus years with the team. As Ben Kabak points out today, Rodriguez particularly struggles when the Bombers are behind, so when Yankee fans are amped for a rally, that is when Rodriguez is faltering, magnifying his failures in the process.

Personally, I think the fact that he presses in big spots actually makes him more appealing. Before, there was something too smooth about him, too perfect. I mean, how can you relate to a guy as good as he is? Most fans can’t. His “pressing” makes him vulnerable and for me, that’s something to latch onto in an endearing way. For most, though, it’s a sweet reasaon to go in for the kill. And of course the money is at the root of the resentment that Rodriguez has been saddled with since he signed his huge contract.

I also think Rodriguez has become a lighting rod–pardon the pun–for how Yankee fans deal with their own sense of entitlement. George Steinbrenner has long fostered this sense of entitlement and now there is a generation of Yankee fans, many too young to remember what it was like when the Yankees were a mediocre team, who have followed suit. I find it ugly and obnoxious. Worse of all, it discounts how difficult the game is and how hard most of these players work. As we learned a long time ago in the eighties, success is something that cannot be arranged for, no matter how much Steinbrenner spends. Funny, but you never hear that the Yankees are paying Rodriguez $15 million this year. The Big Unit, Mike Mussina, Giambi and Jeter all make more. Not a bad value, eh?

But Rodriguez has becocme the glass half-empty for many Yankee fans. The general vibe is to focus on what he hasn’t done instead of appreciating what he has done. So if he isn’t great, he sucks. It’s not as if they want him to fail, but he they feel entitled to get nasty when he does. It comes with the territory for Rodriguez, especially in a town like New York. The newspapers have been not always been kind. And now, a disturbing twist in the David Justice rip-job story (Justice killed Rodriguez the other night on the post-game show).

I just think about the numbers he’s put up since he signed with Texas and then consider how much he’s been killed for his salary ever since. Can you imagine what the fans and the media would have done to him if he was actually awful on the field during that time?

You may or may not be sympathetic to Rodriguez’s current situation. He’s carrying a heavy load and it often looks like it is getting to him. I know he’s a corporate guy, but I admire his work ethic. He cares. If I could wish anything for him it would be for him to lighten up a little. Dig this winning quote from Derek Jeter, talking to reporters about Jose Reyes:

“He enjoys playing,” Jeter said. “It looks like he’s always smiling and having a good time. I think you have to be that way, especially here. You’ve got to make sure you enjoy yourself. If he stays healthy, he’s going to have a long career. He’s fun to watch.”

Jeter is a gamer in the George Brett sense of the word. He’s constantly enjoying himself. Whether Jeter is up with the game on the line in October or in a blowout game in Kansas City in August he’s never too tight or too loose. Though his talent outshines Jeter’s, the game doesn’t look like fun for Rodriguez. Given the huge expectations placed on him I can understand why. Man, he deserves to enjoy himself a little bit. A big weekend against the Mets would go a long way in restoring some of the ol’ joie de vivre to A Rod’s life. I know it sure would add to mine.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver